If we put a sign outside that said FREE GUILT, or “travel agent for guilt trips” who would want to come here? It would likely get people's attention, but it not be congruent with UU Principles and Purposes.
And yet guilt has remained a part of human society for so long. It must serve some purpose. Why is guilt so popular? What's the appeal?
... Tradition, Tradition, Tradition (sung to the tune of song from Fiddler on the Roof)
Passing on guilt is a time honored tradition. At some level, we do it to maintain ties with those who have gone before us. Sometimes we do the same things our parents did. That we hated it when they did it to us, is beside the point. We think “hey I didn't like it at the time, but I turned out to be a decent person.” Similarly, teachers and role models shared guilt with us. We remain loyal to them. And besides how else could we get the next generation to behave the way we want them to?
I'm hoping this will be one of those days that you are glad to be UU, that you will be grateful for a tradition that encourages us to break w/ traditions that don't serve humankind.
But before we talk about throwing away guilt, let's consider the purposes that it has served. Guilt has been our trusted companion. If we deny this, we will likely put it in the category of things we should do. We'll say “I should give up guilt,” which means that we will hold on to it the rest of our lives.
Individuals and society have used guilt to try to inhibit behavior believed to be “bad.” Have you ever been tempted to do something inconsistent with your values, but feelings of guilt gave you enough pause that you were able to choose otherwise? (hands raise) Thank you for your honesty.
Guilt is painful. ... But don't we want people to feel pain when they try to advance themselves at the cost of another person? For example when John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace” decided to end his career transporting African hostages, captives for the slave trade, surely it was his conscience, his guilt that caused him to stop.
Don't you wish that guilt had deterred employees of BP and Haliburton who caused the gulf shore spill? Don't we wish that CEOs, stock traders, and bank executives had felt enough guilt to stop them from actions that brought about the Wall St. crash in 08 that tumbled our economy?
Some of you may take issue with my assumption that guilt is a choice. You might see it as a natural and inevitable consequence of doing things that are wrong? But what is wrong? Most people don't feel guilty if they get a math problem wrong. It's when we conveniently lose our math skills so as not to notice that the cashier gave us back too much change, that we are likely to feel a twinge of guilt.
Guilt comes when we believe we have done something that is morally wrong. Morality is acquired. We learn what “is wrong” based on rules, mores and stories in our culture. Fundamentalists tell us argue that “right” and “wrong” are objective things, indisputable facts. Although we are in agreement as to the repugnance of many human behaviors that cause harm, as religious liberals we acknowledge the subjectivity, personal or cultural bias that influence us when we judge someone's behavior as “wrong or worthy of guilt.”
We value intelligent choosing, critical examination of what authorities say. We recognize that guilt is one way of promoting learning. It is a way of seeking to influence behavior.
God forgive me for telling a Jewish mother joke to illustrate my point, but “How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” A; “None. Don't worry about me. I'll just sit here in the dark.”
Now that I have given guilt its due, I intend to make clear why it is possible and desirable to reduce even eliminate the use of guilt to educate ourselves and others. Guilt is a costly way of influencing people. Guilt sets us at a conflict, and seeks to use the coercion of punishment to achieve its ends. In so doing it wastes a lot of energy by putting people at odds with each other and ourselves. Guilt always degrades the human intelligence. It has the effect of limiting our ability to choose, and impedes our ability to intelligently decide.
What?! Do I want us to be free to act in ways that harm others, harm our environment, harm society? Actually what I want to point out that in fact we already are. We have been born with the capacity to choose violence, the capacity to ignore the effects that our actions have upon other people. Guilt has not stopped humanity or even diminished the human capacity for selfish or socially harmful behaviors. What I'm suggesting is that being at odds with ourselves is not an effective means to alleviate suffering.
For thousands of years members of Western society have been educated in such a way that we believe we must dominate (our) nature. I want us to challenge the assumption that nature is something that can and should be dominated and conquered. Guilt is one of the key ways that we have learned to distrust our own nature. Look what our history of being at odds with nature has wrought: a degraded environment; polluted air, water and land, also war and widespread violence. Distrust of our own nature has made it difficult to achieve success in being able to cooperate for the benefit of humankind.
Now if you don't see the link to guilt, hold on. I hope to make that clear.
Guilt only works when we think our impulses are wrong, bad and can't be trusted. Distrust of our impulses is not something we were born with. Distrust of our internal urgings is something that we learned.
We learn how to think and feel about life, people, ourselves, our environment as a result of what we live. We acquire this learning from the examples of the people around us when we are growing up. I saw an example of this last week. I was visiting a friend. Seeing her face, I said, “is something wrong, you look really troubled. She said that she had just spoken to her spouse, who had quit her job. I made a guess about what was going on for her, and she gave a short serious response. However, she quickly changed her tone. Perhaps half joking she said, “And I was just about to begin remodeling the bathroom. I have waited since we moved in. I've been good. I deserve a new bathroom. I want a new bathroom.” Her 9 year old just a few feet away chimed in “And I want “Kinect”, I've been good, and I deserve Kinect.” What is Kinect, I asked. It's a computer game, said her mom.
Now I have no doubt that Mom had deeper concerns than the delay of her bathroom remodel. Perhaps she was turning away from the deeper pain and making light of the news. Perhaps it was guilt or social prohibition that kept me from thinking of anything else to say. What struck me though, was daughter's modeling of mother's response.
How do we learn to be appropriate? To cut off ourselves from the deep stirrings of values and life urging us from within?
Psychologist Marshal Rosenberg suggests that the cause is an education system designed to maintain a domination society. He asks “If you wanted to dominate a population, how would you train people so that they would submit easily? You would teach them to ignore the stirrings of their souls, and get them to pay attention instead to what the authorities decide is deserving of reward and punishment.” *1
According to Rosenberg, we were each taught to conform and comply with authority through extensive system or rewards and punishments. Each of us learned to ignore the inner feelings and needs that are life's bidding us to live.
When we acted in ways that the authorities in our life did not like, we likely heard messages such as “Will you behave? And “What's wrong with you?” Before long we learned to keep ourselves in line by using the same techniques on ourselves. When we do things that we believe would be called “wrong” or “bad,” our thoughts likely give us the same kind of messages we heard as children.
Well I know we have a lot of parents here. Hearing me talk about the ways our society expects adults to dominate children, I bet some people are really feeling guilty. And my sermon title suggested the possibility of letting go of guilt.
IF you are feeling guilty, it simply means that you are judging yourself for judging yourself or judging yourself for judging others. I am here to suggest that a way to influence ourselves and others without the coercive use of guilt, condemnation and judgment.
Faith that punishment is not needed for learning is part of our Universalist tradition. The Universalist believed that a loving god would never give eternal punishment to humanity. They had faith that the love of God was all powerful and ultimately we wouldn't be able to resist it.
I want to continue the Universalist tradition, and assure you that it is possible to exert influence with love rather than coercive guilt and fear. It's simple to do,.... but simple doesn't necessarily mean easy. Some of us have found that it very difficult to reverse a lifetime of influencing ourselves and others through guilt and judgment.
What I'm proposing contradicts years of training. It challenges long held belief systems we've relied upon to provide order and meaning in our lives. If what I have said makes even a little sense. If you are even a little bit tempted to consider the possibility that you could influence yourself and others without guilt, then you are beginning an intervention of this age old mechanism. You are interrupting its dominance and operation in your life. You are growing in consciousness, and becoming aware of choice where choice has been obscured.
How do we learn to influence others and ourselves without using guilt, without coercing, implying judgment or threatening punishment? Rosenberg writes “every moralistic judgment is a tragic expression of an unmet need.” He asserts that everything we say and do is an attempt to meet some life serving need. Judgments are “tragic expressions” because they decrease the chances that we will find fulfillment. When people hear judgments, they're likely to see only the choice to submit or to rebel. When we imply that someone is wrong and deserving of punishment, we make it very unlikely that they will actually hear the beautiful need we are trying to express. They are then less likely to want to contribute to us willingly or joyfully. When people submit to our will out of a fear of punishment or a desire for reward, especially the reward of approval, their compliance comes at great cost. Such compliance decreases the chances of future trust both to us and themselves. It will likely cost them in terms of self worth, self trust, and self connection.
Have you noticed that when people sense that they are being pushed, there is a strong likelihood there will be resistance? Even when people submit, they often deliver payback. I've discovered that the tendency to resist being pushed occurs even when we try to push or coerce ourselves.
An alternative to coercion is to learn to listen for the beautiful force of life wanting to fulfill itself. Sometimes we have to strain to hear this beautiful force through words of criticism and judgment. Sometimes it takes great skill and effort to be able to see beauty in people. Sometimes we can't see through the judgments to find the beauty of our selves. If we have been willing to use force, coercion and violence, perhaps we are operating on a belief that people are bad, evil and can't be trusted. If so it becomes easy to make enemies, even of our selves.
When we remember that person in the mirror and the person in front of us are people who want to live, have safety and a sense of belonging, … who want to fulfill themselves and their ability to contribute, then we won't need guilt to motivate. When we can transcend our training to make people right and wrong, we will remember every soul as precious. We will know that every person's needs matter, and we will work together to create the best world we can.
Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition that doesn't ask us to submit. Rather it asks us to get in touch with what is truly meaningful and sacred. It asks us to discover what's important to us, and then find ways to bring that to life.
We have found that we share many values with the people here, even when we don't agree with each others beliefs. Even when we have very different ways of seeking fulfillment. We have found a community that will help us nurture our children's ability to live with integrity. We have found a place where we can grow in faith.
This church is young. It's a teenager. Recently it's been forced to leave home. It's leaders have strained, and made tough choices. The economy has caused relocation of some very dedicated members. Sometimes some of us feel scared, and frustrated, annoyed, disappointed and even disheartened. Others probably seem to desperately try to ignite hope and positive outlook. This might feel really annoying, or painful.
What are you going to do about it? I'll tell you what I want you to do about it. I want you to find 3-5 people who have worked and contributed, and thank them for their efforts. Maybe you know a person or some people who are in some pain about the changes. I want you to give them the gift of your listening. Don't try to change them. Don't imply that they are wrong. Show them a little love. As Martina McBride sings “Love's the only house big enough for all the pain in the world.” Hang out. Listen to their heart. Listen to your heart.
Lastly, I offer you my prayers as we enter the holiday season. I pray we will move forward in diminishing guilt's oppression this year. I pray that we will overcome judgments of right doing and wrong doing, that we will show up and allow ourselves to be touched by life. I pray that we find the faith, the hope, the courage to hold it all, pain and joy. Peace to you!